27th June 2014
Everyone knows the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword, though I bet no one can say who coined it.
Well, for your information, it was English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and maybe his only famous line. Of course, the sentiment didn't start with him, and Shakespeare also famously wrote, "Many men wearing rapiers are afraid of goose quills." But then even before The Bard, Mohammed is credited as saying, "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr" (whoops, that line must be on the inside crease of the Qu'ran, difficult to read...)
I bring this up because the British media reported this week how Russian writer Boris Pasternak's book Dr. Zhivago actually was picked up and used as a sword. Apparently, in 1957 a British intelligence officer took it upon himself to copy Dr. Zhivago when it became clear the book was going to be banned in Russia. (Russian authorities rejected its "non-acceptance of the socialist revolution.") M16 then passed the book on to the CIA who recognised its potential for stirring up unrest in Russian politics and came up with a plan. A war plan. They needed the Russian public to read Pasternak's book, but they knew that if they tried to send copies of Dr. Zhivago into Russia, it would be intercepted by the censors. So instead they started handing out the book to travellers who were going into the country, and they orchestrated a number of foreign editions, including the English one.
Who would have thought? Who even read Dr. Zhivago, or do most people, like myself, know of it because of the beautiful movie? Who is Dr. Zhivago - is he an orphan forced to endure the hardships of the socialist takeover, or is he dreamy Omar Shariff unable to remove his heart from Lara? Who knows if Dr. Zhivago contributed to the downfall of communism. It certainly didn't hurt that the Noble committee awarded Pasternak its prize for literature (was that CIA influence, too?)
What is without question is that men with swords do fear writers with quills, and that is why art is one of the first things any totalitarian regime goes after. You have to control the art or the truth will out.
John Steinbeck in the journals he wrote while writing his oeuvre, took up considerable space waxing lyrical about certain pens that came into his possession. Even though I write my oeuvre on the computer, I do still understand the joy of a pen that fits nicely in the hand and flows. But more than that, what matters are the words that come out of the tip, the voice that needs to speak out in any culture and does so through the pen. Swords cut off limbs, but words cut into the meat of the heart. That is the glory, and for some the danger, of this whole enterprise.
My apologies to the graphic artist who came up with the above picture. I don't know who you are, but I appreciate the sentiment.